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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Sleep and His Brother by Peter Dickinson

Various editions, including Felony & Mayhem, 224 pages, $14.95 (c1971)

The British master of unusual crime fiction (among other extensive literary outpourings), Peter Dickinson, died in December 2015 at the age of 88. He was a prolific writer, a lot of them children’s books. Dickinson’s mysteries were high-level exercises in writing and creativity and mostly untraditional. He was lauded by critics and received many awards. “Sleep and His Brother” was the fourth of six Superintendent Jimmy Pibble mysteries, according to Dickinson's website.

When “Sleep” opens, Pibble has been unceremoniously dumped by Scotland Yard and is uncomfortable in his “retirement.” His wife has a connection to a society that helps children with the mysterious disorder cathypny, a sleeping disorder that eventually leads to the early death of its victims. She claims the society needs Pibble’s help and sends him off. He is embarrassed to be poking along with no objective requiring his skills, but he heads off anyway to avoid confronting the redoubtable Mrs. Pibble.

There is no clear-cut mystery (other than the childrens’ ailment) for almost the entire book. But there is foreboding, foreshadowing, forewarning, and eccentric characters galore. One of them is a scientist working on understanding the disorder, and he, coincidentally, is Jimmy’s pubmate. Having never seen him in his professional milieu, Jimmy is fascinated by Rue Kelly and his patients. Cathypnic (a made-up disorder) children sleep about twenty hours a day. They seem of low intelligence, but there is evidence of a telepathic connection between them. Can Kelly and Ram Silver, another scientist working with the children, confirm the telepathic bond? And is Jimmy really a missing link to prove it? 

What of the organization that wants to “preserve” the architectural significance of the society’s building? Is the obsessive and obstinate manager seriously bonkers? Is there a serial killer haunting the grounds?

The action takes place during the course of one day, mostly at the society’s building with its dozing, sleeping, potentially telepathic children, the society's manager, the two scientists, and small staff. Off-site we also meet a bombastic millionaire who funds certain of the society’s experiments and a grande dame, once the regal owner of the mansion the society now inhabits.

Pibble has a well-honed nose for trouble and he is bound to find it, whether it truly exists or not.

Reading this book issued in 1971 reminds me how much “popular” writing has changed. Some of Dickinson’s allusions are classical and his language is polysyllabic and overflowing. Thoughts do not necessary flow from one to the other. Rather, there are leaps the reader must make (or just simply give up and go with that flow). “Sleep” is no longer easy reading, if ever it was, but its sense of style must surely impress even a modern audience.

Photograph: E Hamilton West for the Guardian

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